If you love the Christmas markets that Europe is so famous for, then you’ll love Strasbourg at Christmas. The medieval heart of the city goes all out to celebrate the holidays. It offers ten Christmas markets, a gigantic Christmas tree and delicious traditional Christmas food and drink sold at streets stalls everywhere. Add to that a fairytale backdrop of “gingerbread” medieval houses and you get a true Christmas wonderland!
Even more so, the whole of the Alsace area, with its picturesque villages and enchanting countryside is at its most magical at Christmas. Alsace is on the border between France and Germany. As such, it has changed hands (and nationality) several times throughout the centuries. Consequently, even though it is nowadays a French city, the German influence is still strong. You can see it in the local dialect, the street names and especially the food (sausages and sauerkraut, anyone?)
In fact, Strasbourg is so close to Germany that the tramway connects the city with Kehl in Baden-Württemberg, Germany in less than half an hour. So it comes as no surprise that they love Christmas so much in Strasbourg!
The best things to see & do in Strasbourg, France at Christmas
Grande Île, a UNESCO Heritage site
The Grande Île is an island at the heart of Strasbourg and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. On one side it has the river Ill and on the other the Canal du Faux-Rampart, a canalised arm of the river. Its name means “Big Island”.
At the centre of the island lies Place Kléber, the city’s main square. On the Grande Île you will also find the Cathedral and the Petite France district. The area around the Cathedral is fully pedestrianised, as is the Petite France, which makes exploring them on foot very easy.
During the holiday season, the medieval centre of Strasbourg puts on its finery, with Christmas lights and decorations on every street, shop and facade. On the island there are also many winestubs (the local pub/tavern), where you can enjoy a traditional lunch or dinner, as well as many more historic buildings, churches and museums.
In other words, this is the historic and touristic heart of Strasbourg.
Strasbourg Cathedral (Cathédrale de Notre-Dame)
Strasbourg Cathedral is the signature landmark of the city. It is so tall that I used it as a kind of GPS. In fact, it is the world’s fourth tallest church! If you run out of mobile data and can’t access Google maps, just look above. Soon you’ll spot the spire of the Cathedral and then can figure out where you are in relation to it.
The Cathedral is a true Gothic masterpiece. It has beautiful stained glass windows, religious statues and decorations. The best time to visit is before noon., before the crowds. In addition, around that time you can also see the Astronomical Clock in action. Every day, at 12.30 p.m., the clock’s automatons start moving and they show a parade of the stages of life, as well as the apostles of Christ.
In addition, at Christmas, the Cathedral hosts a large Nativity Scene inside, as well as a Christmas Market on the steps outside, with stalls selling crafts, wooden toys, decorations and more.
Strasbourg Christmas Market, the oldest in Europe
Strasbourg boasts the oldest Christmas market in Europe. According to historical records, the first Christmas market in the region took place in 1570 and was called “Christkindelsmärik“.
Every year, over 300 stalls take their place in Place Broglie, selling from handmade crafts to artisanal goods, and from traditional Alsatian foods to Christmas decorations.
Even more (!) Christmas Markets of Strasbourg
The Christmas market in Place Broglie might be the oldest and most famous, but it sure isn’t the only one! Strasbourg has a total of ten (10) Christmas Markets that cater to all tastes. Mind you, Strasbourg itself is actually quite small! It is entirely possible to visit several markets on foot in one day.
Decorating the city with lights and Christmas ornaments starts in mid-November. The Christmas markets are typically open from late-November to Christmas Eve.
More events and festivities take place all over Strasbourg and particularly at Place Kléber, Place Broglie, and even at the steps of the Cathedral.
The giant Christmas tree at Place Kléber
At a whopping 30 metres (about 100 feet) tall at least, the Great Christmas Tree of Place Kléber is a sight by itself. Its trunk alone can reach up to 120 metres in diameter! It is a real tree and the head of the French Forestry Office searches for it in the forests of Alsace and the Vosges Mountains, starting March every year.
Traditionally, the people of Strasbourg would leave gifts for the poor at the feet of the great tree. Nowadays there is also a “Village of Sharing”, a Christmas Market with 85 booths by charities, including Médecins du Monde, the Red Cross and more.
The Great Christmas Tree dominates the square, which is also the main shopping area of Strasbourg. Around the square and its nearby streets you’ll find all the major shopping and eating brands, such as the famous Galleries Lafayette, as well as smaller boutiques with one-of-a-kind products.
The Petite France Quarter (“Little France”)
Located on the western side of the Grand Île, it is Strasbourg’s most visited area. Back in the Middle Ages, it was the favoured neighbourhood of tanners and butchers, because of the easy access to fresh water.
Today, the whole district is car-free and the picturesque half-timbered houses are in excellent condition, making it the highlight of any visit to Strasbourg. The so-called “Tanner’s House“, on the canal banks, is one of the quarter’s most famous houses.
Pro tip: some of the wooden bridges are in fact canal locks and you might have to step off them when a boat approaches. So better be mindful of that when taking photos while standing on a bridge. Most certainly do NOT listen to music on headphones! Otherwise, you might unwittingly cause some commotion with the lock wardens (looking innocent)
The Covered Bridges
Near Petite France, you’ll find the Covered Bridges (“Les Ponts Couverts de Strasbourg”). They connect four 14th century towers and formed part of the city’s medieval fortifications. They have kept their name even though they lost their roofs in the 18th century.
A great way to see them is also during a boat tour on the river Ill.
Drink warm glüwein and snack on gingerbread
Strasbourg being a border town, its cuisine is an interesting fusion of French and German traditions. At Christmas time, it is filled with the wonderful aromas of warm sweet wine (aka glüwein or vin chaud) and spices like cinnamon and ginger.
The main street food is the pretzel, sold at street stalls and bakeries, either plain or topped with melted cheese. You’ll find it practically everywhere.
Glüwein or vin chaud, is sweetened red wine, flavoured with cinnamon, clover and other spices, and served hot. The best thing when strolling open air markets in the heart of winter! For children, alcohol-free jus d’orange chaud is on offer, which is hot orange juice with cinnamon, sugar and other spices.
Also, do not miss the traditional pain d’ épices, a delicious kind of gingerbread. The best (imho) can be found at Mireille Oster’s, at the heart of Petite France.
Another cake that you must try while in Strasbourg, is the famous kougelhopf. It is a great part of Alsatian culinary tradition. So much so that the special ceramic forms in which it is baked are family heirlooms, passed from mother to daughter for generations.
Go on a river boat tour
To my experience, boat tours may seem a touristy thing to do, but actually are a great way to see a river or canal city. They offer you a truly unique view of the place and are very comfortable too, after all that walking!
In winter, the boats are covered (with panoramic glass covers) and heated, so no worries about the weather. The tours run about an hour and circle the Grand Île. It’s a very relaxed (and warm!) way to take in the sights of Petite France, Neustadt (also a UNESCO Heritage Site) and the European Quarter with the headquarters for the European Council.
The European Quarter
The European Quarter is at the northwest of Strasbourg. It is the home of the Council of Europe and several other European Union (EU) institutions. The Palace of Europe, the building that houses the European Parliament, is an impressive modern building, which dominates the area.
Interestingly, Strasbourg was chosen to host many EU institutions because the region suffered a lot throughout history due to war and conflict. Consequently, when the European countries decided to reunite after the second World War, they chose to establish the Council of Europe in this city, to encourage peace and cooperation among nations.
The Orangerie Park
This is the city’s oldest park and a favourite leisure spot for locals of all ages. It is an excellent place to have a relaxing stroll after all that sightseeing. It is also family-friendly, with a vintage children’s car track, miniature farm and zoo. There is also a small waterfall, a boating lake, a restaurant and more.
Finally, at the Orangerie Park you can see the bird-symbol of Alsace, the stork.
Take a stroll on the banks of the river Ill
Strasbourg is quite a small town, rather flat and with a pedestrianised historical centre, which makes it a dream to explore on foot. One of the best walks is along the river banks. You get to admire all the fine medieval buildings (beautifully decorated for Christmas) and enjoy views of the river from the many bridges.
Visit a winery on the Alsace wine route
Alsace is famous for its wines. Any trip to Strasbourg and Alsace is not complete without visiting at least one winery, even if you are not a big fan of wine.
The Alsace Wine Route is the oldest wine route in France. It runs from north to south and you can enjoy wine tastings at almost every winery along the route. It is a great way to meet the wine makers of the region and learn more about Alsace’s most famous product.
Visit the fairytale villages and markets of Riquewihr, Eguisheim and Colmar
The villages of Alsace are a true gem and deserve a post of their own. Beautiful all year round, they are particularly enchanting during Christmastime. Stroll the richly illuminated streets of Colmar, admire the decorated half-timbered houses of Riquewihr and enjoy an enchanting walk in the tiny alleys of fairytale Eguisheim.
Every Alsatian village and town also has its own Christmas market and here I just mention the most picturesque ones. Most markets are open from late November to Christmas Eve.
This is the most visited castle in Alsace. It is incredibly popular (read: crowded) but fully restored so well worth the visit.
If you visit in late fall/early winter, the castle and its surroundings often get shrouded in mist and fog, which only adds to its romantic appeal. On the other hand, on clearer days, due to its location on a rocky outcrop, the castle offers magnificent views of the Alsace plain below.
Where to stay in Strasbourg
All major sights of Strasbourg are within walking distance, therefore you can choose any location in the city to be your base for exploration. That said, my favourite is Hotel Cour du Corbeau, which combines comfort and historic authenticity, as it is housed in a restored medieval traveller’s inn. The beds are exceptionally comfy too!
Is Christmas your favourite time of the year? Do you dream of visiting a truly magical Christmas market? Then you’ll love a trip to the Strasbourg Christmas markets and the fairytale villages of Alsace in December.